They Show You Photographs of How Your Life Should Be*

IllusionsWe all know of course that life isn’t perfect. But the illusion that it could be is very appealing. That illusion of a perfect setting/life/society/etc. can be very powerful. It’s what sells all sorts of products from ‘the perfect getaway holiday’ to ‘the perfect hairstyle’ to just about anything else. Just look at the ‘photo, for instance. It’s a picture of the famous Las Vegas Strip, where nearly everything is a carefully-crafted illusion of perfection. That ideal of perfection is also arguably part of what drives people to keep up appearances (e.g. ‘Yes, I have the perfect family.’)

But as I say, life doesn’t work that way. Before you know it, that perfect pair of shoes gets a scratch in it, or new people move onto the perfect street and start throwing loud parties and leaving trash everywhere. Those reminders that nothing’s perfect can be hard to take, because the illusion that it could be is so easy to accept. And that can add quite a lot of tension and suspense to a crime novel. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more examples than I could. Here are a few to get started…

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Linnet Ridgeway seems to have it all. She’s beautiful, wealthy and intelligent. And she’s accustomed to getting what she wants. She’s not deliberately spiteful or destructive, but she is used to arranging her life in exactly the way she decides. As the novel begins, for instance, she’s working on creating the perfect home at Wode Hall, which she’s recently purchased and is having renovated. She’s even trying to tear down a group of local cottages and relocate the people who live in them so that she can have the perfect view. When she meets Simon Doyle, who is engaged to marry her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, she finds herself attracted to him and before long, he too is part of the perfect world she’s trying to create. She and Simon marry and take a cruise of the Nile as part of their honeymoon trip. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet finds out tragically that the world won’t always work her way when she’s shot. The most likely suspect is Jackie, who is also on the cruise. But it’s soon proven that she could not possibly be the murderer. So Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race, who are also aboard, have to search elsewhere for the killer. Interestingly, Poirot tries to warn Linnet that the world cannot be ‘made to order,’ but Linnet doesn’t listen…

The search for the perfect place to live motivates Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their children to move to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. The move seems successful and the family slowly settles in. At first, Stepford seems like an idyllic place to live: good schools, low taxes, friendly people and so on. But Joanna’s friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something dangerous may be going on in Stepford. At first Joanna doesn’t agree, and having just moved there, she’s not overly eager to sell their new house and move again. But after a time, she starts to believe that Bobbie may be right. The closer she gets to the truth, the more she sees that there is no such thing as the perfect place to live. Even beautiful small towns can have their dark secrets.

Glenn Hadlock thinks he’s found the perfect job in Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary. He answers an employment advertisement for a bodyguard/escort position and finds that his prospective employer is wealthy Victor Scofield, who is disabled and in need of a chauffeur/escort for his wife Eileen. The pay and benefits are excellent, and Hadlock accepts right away when the job is offered to him. At first it seems like an ideal situation for him. Scofield is not exactly a pleasant person, but he is fair and generous, and Hadlock gets a nice place to live, a good wardrobe and plenty of spending money. He also gets to spend time with Eileen Scofield, and that becomes a serious problem when he finds himself attracted to her. Scofield has told Hadlock that his relationship with Eileen must be strictly professional. As Hadlock finds that employment condition harder and hard to accept, he also finds that his perfect job arrangement…isn’t.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces us to Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. She works hard to create the illusion that she’s the perfect girlfriend, and then the perfect wife, to police officer Bill King. And she succeeds too, at least at first. She’s beautiful, smart, witty, and friendly. Her parties are perfectly arranged, the food is always beautifully presented and delicious, and she and Bill are the most popular hosts among their group of friends. But Bill’s sister Lora gradually begins to suspect that Alice is not the person she seems to be. First it’s a matter of little inconsistencies in what Alice says about herself. Then Lora begins to wonder just what kind of secrets Alice has. The more she learns about Alice’s life, the more she is at the same time repelled by and drawn to it. And she’s a little worried for Bill, to whom she’s always felt close. To her, Bill is too eager to believe that Alice is the perfect wife that he thinks she is. Then there’s a tragic murder, and Lora thinks Alice may be involved in it. If so, this could be dangerous for Bill. So Lora has to decide how she’ll go about finding out the truth and what she’ll do when she does find out.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we meet Eva Wirenström-Berg, her husband Henrik and their son Axel. Eva has worked very hard to create the perfect home, complete with white picket fence, and the perfect family life. She’s arranged everything as best she can to make everything idyllic. But of course, life isn’t that way. One day Eva finds out that Henrik has been unfaithful. She knew he’d been unhappy for a while (ironically, a lot of that had to do with her own attempts to make everything perfect). But this discovery devastates her. One night she goes out to a pub, where she meets Jonas Hansson, who has his own troubles. That meeting soon leads to both of their lives spinning out of control. And (again ironically), the more they try to make things perfect, the less perfect things get.

Qiu Xiaolong addresses the issue of the ‘perfect society’ in Enigma of China. In that novel, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police is assigned to investigate what seems to be a straightforward case of suicide. Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, had come under investigation for corruption. It’s widely believed he killed himself rather than go through the humiliation that a full investigation plus trial and imprisonment would bring. But Chen isn’t completely sure this was a suicide and in any case, his job as a detective is to investigate fully. So he and his assistant Detective Yu look more deeply into the case. It turns out that the original allegations of corruption came from an Internet ‘grass roots’ group that posted some of the evidence. The Chinese government doesn’t want such groups to post, as that would put the lie to the illusion of a harmonious society that the government wants to create. At the same time, the government used that very group’s evidence against Zhou. It’s a very delicate situation, and in the novel there are several interesting discussions of the way the Internet is now used both for dissent and for factual information, since the official government outlets support only the appearance of societal stability and harmony.

People do want to believe illusions at times, because they can be so appealing. But sometimes, the cost of creating and maintaining an illusion can be awfully high. Maybe it’s just better to acknowledge that life’s not perfect…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s The Grand Illusion.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Karin Alvtegen, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Colby

28 responses to “They Show You Photographs of How Your Life Should Be*

  1. Great post, Margot – so often in crime fiction it’s about the contrast and tension between appearance and reality. And don’t even get me started with those happy-clappy updates on Facebook, congratulating self, husband, kiddies on their fabulous achievements, marvellous holidays, brilliantly witty sayings and overall wholesome goodness…

    • Marina Sofia – Thank you. And I couldn’t agree more about those kinds of updates. I feel the same way about holiday newsletters. But don’t get me started on that… And when it comes to crime fiction, I think you’ve nailed it in saying that there is real (and sometimes beautifully drawn) tension in a lot of those stories between appearance and reality. And the desperate struggle to create that illusion of perfection takes its toll…

  2. Oh, THE STEPFORD WIVES has had such impact on how we view society. Levin was an amazing writer. Each book was different from the others. And each scary.

    • Patti – I agree completely about Levin. Versatile and talented. And yes, The Stepford Wives really did get people thinking about society – people still make cultural allusions to it.

  3. It’s most definitely better to understand life can’t always be perfect, Margot. The rude awakening is more than some folks can handle.

    Meg Abbott’s Die a Little is one of my favorite suspense novels. That slow creepy realization that your loved one’s rose-colored glasses are about to be smashed made for a very compelling plot.

    • Pat – Absolutely! I think it’s important that young people learn that lesson from childhood and not fear a less-than-perfect reality. It’s far better in the long run. And I agree with you about Die a Little. The tension is just beautifully done, isn’t it? And that feeling of protectiveness towards Bill is very well-drawn I think. But then, I’m an Abbott fan.

  4. What a great subject. I like the way Sue Grafton’s novels so often show Kinsey Milhone investigating a family which seems perfect, or wants to be perfect, but has some big problems underneath. Which of course our heroine reveals without fear or favour….

    • Moira – She does indeed! And that’s both a strong quality and a limitation in her life. I think Grafton does a terrific job of showing what it’s like to try to keep up that image of ‘the perfect life,’ which doesn’t exist anyway. And thanks for the kind words.

  5. I recently read DOWN CEMETERY ROAD by Mick Herron. That book features a well off couple; the husband seems to have the perfect job that pays for their nice home, but the reality is a lot different.

    I really have got to get to the series by Qiu Xiaolong; I have 6 books in that series and I have not read book 1 yet.

    • Tracy – I know what you mean about getting to different series. I’m so woefully behind on some of the ones I want to follow that it’s completely pathetic. And thanks for the mention of Down Cemetery Road. I like Herron’s writing, but hadn’t tried that one (yet). I appreciate the reminder of it.

  6. The Broken by Tamar Cohen shows us a wife desperate to cling to the illusion of a perfect marriage as her husband tries to dissolve it and the results of that fallout are not pretty. Illusions are held at a heavy cost to the people concerned and you’re right that crime fiction can show that really well.

    • Rebecca – You put that quite well. There is a very heavy cost to people who try to keep up illusions. And yet, so many people ‘buy into’ that idea that there is such a thing as a perfect marriage/holiday/child/job/home/whatever. Life’s just not that way. And not being willing to accept that takes a toll. Thanks for mentioning the Cohen. I’ve heard good things about it, but I must admit I’ve not (yet) read it. Must do so.

  7. In Liane Moriarty’s brilliant ‘Little Lies’ all the women seem on the surface to have great lives, especially golden Celeste with her perfect marriage to rich and handsome Perry and her two adorable children. But we soon learn that all is not as it seems for any of the characters, and for Celeste most of all…

    ‘Die a Little’ has been on my TBR for ages – must, must get around to reading it…

    • FictionFan – Oh, I hope you do get the chance to read Die a Little. I really do think it’s quite good. And thanks for mentioning Little Lies. That’s on my TBR list and I am really keen to get to it. It’s just the sort of thing I had in mind when I was putting this post together.

  8. Col

    I don’t know that people themselves ever feel they have “perfect” lives, I would say its more a label that gets applied to them from envious onlookers, jealous of the house, the car, the money, the wife, the celebrity.

    Loved the Levin book, though it’s many years since I read it.

    • Col – You have a point. And therein lies the tension. People are aware they don’t have perfect lives, but there is this ideal that they could – that there is something such as perfection. So they strive for it, or they see what they think is perfection in others’ lives and, as you say, they envy it. And that tension can, I think, really add to a story. I agree with you too that the Levin is a good ‘un.

  9. What an absolutely marvelous post. I want to rush out and pick up every one of the books you mention (except Death on the Nile, of course), because each is so appealing.
    The effort required to maintain the image of perfection is difficult indeed, isn’t it? And very often, people who strive to do so, are often trying to hide very dirty secrets.
    For some reason I am reminded of The Ice Princess- another person who appeared perfect, but had more than her share of secrets to hide.

    • Natasha – Thanks for the kind words. And I think you’re absolutely right about Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess. In that case there’s a real pattern of what happens when people try to create this illusion (or, when they try to buy into the illusion) that there can be a perfect life. All too often, as you say, people who appear to be leading that kind of life – who seem to ‘have it all’ – usually don’t. And they often are hiding some dirty truths.

  10. Someone ought to set a crime novel during a “perfect family Christmas”, too. All those little fault lines coming together at a time when the pressure to conform is probably at its highest. Great post, btw. 🙂

    • Thanks, Tess. And you’re right; that ‘perfect family Christmas’ is a great context for a crime story. There really is a lot of pressure to have everything just right, and with all sorts of disparate personalities (to say nothing of the history there may be in the family), holidays almost never are perfect…

  11. Not exactly crime related but I’ve just been watching Mad Men series 5 (I think) Betty, Don’s first wife, is so perfect on the outside but as mad as a cut snake on the inside. In fact I think she’s one of the most chilling characters in the series. There’s lots of fun to be had dramatically with that.

    • Vickey – There is indeed! And although Mad Men isn’t, strictly speaking, crime fiction, it’s an interesting look at that era. And it shows how the illusion of perfection can really impact what we do and how we do it.

  12. Stepford Wives has long been on my wishlist and after reading this, I want to read it immediately. Die a Little also seems very interesting. Thanks Margot.

    • Neeru – The Stepford Wifes is a classic Ira Levin novel. In some ways it’s dated, but still eminently readable. And Die a Little is a terrific example of a modern historical (the novel takes place in the 1950s) noir novel. I hope that if you read them, you’ll like them.

  13. Kathy D.

    The illusion of the “perfect” family cracks in Tana French’s Broken Harbor. And I would also say that happens in Wendy James book The Mistake.

  14. Great post, Margot. Marina was spot on with her comment: “so often in crime fiction it’s about the contrast and tension between appearance and reality.”
    Which reminds me: at first I thought the picture was somewhere in China, Shanghai maybe. So many of the messages in the media – correct or no – present China as a place awash in colors, dynamism and energy. But otherwise, don’t get me started on marketing and hype …. Facebook either 🙂

    • Thank you, Bryan. And I thought Marina Sofia’s comment was beautifully put too. I’ve honestly never been to China, so I don’t know from experience what it’s like. But last year I had the opportunity to teach an intensive English class to a group of students from Beijing. From what they said, the publicity is quite different to what life there is really like. Oh, and about hype? Don’t get me started either. Please.

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